Apr 29, 2012


During the week of May 7-13 we celebrate the annual CBC - sponsored Children’s Book Week. I invited a unique guest to help us get in the right frame of mind: none other than Moose, co-star of the recently released Z IS FOR MOOSE, by Kelly Bingham, pictures by Paul O. Zelinsky.

A Horn Book review offers a detailed description worth reading. Moose insists that you check out this link before we begin, and also wants me to mention that the book has already earned
six starred reviews, including Horn Book, Publishers’ Weekly, School Library journal, Booklist, Kirkus Reviews, and the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books (CCB).

That said, Moose has signaled hoofs up to start discussing his book.

Six starred reviews? For an alphabet book? How hard can it be to create a simple alphabet book? With Zebra in charge and the other initial letter icons clearly experienced at this process, things should proceed without a hitch: “A is for apple, B is for ball” etc. Anyone could do that, right? Everyone has done that, right again?

Not with Moose in the line-up they haven't.

Even before the title page Moose is peeking under the curtain and dancing in anticipation while the other alphabet players calmly wait for directions.

And about that title page. Moose smugly eyes the large banner he has inserted which obscures the intended title, changing it to Z is for MOOSE. With just a squeak of foreshadowing tucked into the title “M”, the roll call begins without a glitch.
Each alphabet actor discards the everyday gear it is bearing or wearing (Ball has a bear, Cat wears a track suit, and Zebra wears suitably striped referee shirt and cap) to take its place on the platform and strike a traditional alphabet book pose. These are clearly composed, experienced icons, and Zebra is clearly running the show.

So far.

There’s just one problem- Moose. His eagerness, excitability, impatience, and raw exuberance (not to mention his size) dislodge the duck, edge out the elephant, hang over the hat, and otherwise manage to create mayhem while waiting for his turn on the M stage. To his horror (I agree, Moose, who can blame you?) he is appalled to find that “M is for MOUSE”!
From that point on the tension and chaos rapidly escalate through stages of denial, rage, depression, resignation, and on to a satisfyingly surprising reconciliation.

In an earlier post about the POWER OF PICTURE BOOKS I wrote that the very best picture books are compact, compelling, and complete, with layers upon layers of entertainment, imagery, and depth of meaning.
On every count, Z Is for Moose is one powerful book.

As an alphabet book alone it offers novel repetition of images, consistent sequence, and embedded “search” potential (W= Whale + wail; Y= YoYo + yank; T= Truck +teeth +tires +tail; S= Snake+ stripes+ stop+ +scratch out +scribble +sneer, etc.)

Character traits abound in both Moose and Zebra, but in every other player as well, offering potential discussions of imagined inner thoughts and subtext. That queen certainly looks like she'd have something to say, given half a chance. Take a look at the expression on Mouse to guess how he feels about all this.

Readers of any age may pause to consider the reasonable limits of enthusiasm, alternatives to intrusion, external control vs. self-control, freedom of expression vs. a time and place for order. Then there are questions of fairness, kindness, bullying, peer support, and personal space.

Okay, Moose, I agree. This book is funny and entertaining and none of this is necessary.
But give yourself (and Zebra and Kelly and Paul and your alphabet friends) credit for creating a book that wins on every level and is destined to be a classic.

I'm delighted to report that next week's post will feature interviews with Kelly Bingham and Paul O. Zelinsky discussing their creation of this remarkable book. That allows everyone time to read it before they pop in! (No, Moose, next week is their week, not yours. Yes, I'll let you ask some questions, too.)

I'd love to see what your thoughts are about the book, and be sure to stop back next week to hear from Kelly and Paul. If you've had a chance to share the book with kids, please comment on their reactions to Moose and Company. I'll bet Paul and Kelly would enjoy reading what they have to say.

If you are an aspiring PB creator yourself, this week I have a guest post at Rochelle Melander's blog with some tips and basics.

Apr 23, 2012


Last week's spotlight on Brian Lies demonstrated the power of illustration not only to tell, but to swell a story to (and even beyond) its potential.

This week let’s take a closer look at some picture books in which the words can be just as potent. In every quality picture book the illustrations can and must carry their weight, but some books have a Suess-like capacity to intrigue and rivet our attention with the words themselves.

For a challenge of those proportions we can turn to Verla Kay’s books. Her series of historical fiction picture books are densely packed treasures of information delivered in the signature style she labels “cryptic rhyme”. Using tightly metered and rhymed short passages, her words tell childlike stories yet depict fascinating details about times and places in the past.

HORNBOOKS AND INKWELLS, illustrated by S. D. Schindler, provides examples. Her “terse verse” combines with Schindler’s double page spread of the interior of a colonial one room schoolhouse to plunge the reader back in time, costume, custom, and standards:

“Sternly standing, master greets. / Pairs of children, taking seats.
Hardwood benches, musty smell. / Children scurry, final bell.
John Paul bristles,/ ‘Take that back!’/Brothers bicker, / Thick rod, THWACK!”

Schindler's illustrations temper the ominous quality of the text, and each page unveils further aspects of a child’s life at that time, many of which are quirky and appealing (hornbooks, inkwells), many quite familiar (struggling to read, recess, daydreaming). Verla Kay’s cryptic verses require making inferences, using context, managing unfamiliar vocabulary, and visual literacy. This text can raise as many questions as it answers, but endnotes provide background and further factual snippets. These are books that trigger investigation, discussion, and imagination.


Since the subject is the power of a few well-chosen words in picture books, let’s wrap up here with a brief mention of picture books specifically focused on figurative language, word play, and tongue-twisters. Here are some you'll want to know about:

Find a review of RAINING CATS AND DOGS: A Collection of Irresistible Idioms and Illustrations to Tickle the Funny Bones of Young People. by Will Moses at BooksForKidsBlog.

Check here for a Kirkus review of MUDDY AS A DUCK PUDDLE And Other American Similes by Laurie Lawlor, illustrated by Ethan Long.

TEN SECOND TONGUE TWISTERS by Mike Artell, illustrated by Buck Jones.

Finally, for some laugh-out-loud (overused, I know, but it is the best description here) word blunders, be sure to read an old favorite, DON’T FORGET THE BACON by Pat Hutchins.

That only scratches the surface of possible picture books in which the language invites repeated readings, sharing, investigation, and imitation. More proof that picture books are NOT only for babies!

Apr 15, 2012


I hope you've already met BRIAN LIES (looks like "lies" but rhymes with "cheese").

Just in case you're not familiar with his work, the 2012 release of MORE, by I. C. Springman and illustrated by Brian Lies, is an ideal introduction.

An incredibly intense visual experience combines with a few perfectly chosen words to create a marvelous story arc in this recent release. This book uses a progression of descriptive "quantity" words to indicate increasing amounts from nothing to something to enough on to too much. Then, like a receding tide, the story continues back to less, ending at the start- but not quite where it began.

If you aren't already a fan of birds, mice, and nature, not to mention magpies, you will be by the end of this book. The multiple subplots and subtexts, the expressive faces and body language, and the depth of theme make multiple rereadings and close examination a treat. The intricacies and humor of the details are utterly irresistible.

While the obvious theme is "Less is More", it also explores friendship, community efforts, and loyalty.

As Levar Burton always says on Reading Rainbow: "But don't take my word for it..." Other rave reviews about MORE can be found at KIRKUS REVIEWS and GEEKDAD blog.

Then take a look at even MORE of Brian Lies's work.

I'm an admitted bird-lover. Have been since I was a child. I came to an appreciation of bats much later in life. Separating fact from myth about bats with third graders will do that for you.
So will reading Brian Lies's titles about bats: BATS AT THE BALLGAME, BATS AT THE BEACH, and BATS AT THE LIBRARY.
These bats exude oodles of adventurous and comical personality despite the appropriately dark-hued images in each book. Rhymed verse adds appeal. Considering the fantastic premise of each story, a remarkable amount of accurate information about bats is revealed within the context of the stories.
Do yourself and any kids you know a favor and spend some time with Brian Lies. (And that includes his many other titles!)

Then stop back and let me know what you think.

Be sure to check comments below- Brian Lies was kind enough to stop by with some thoughts about his illustration process for MORE.
Sal's Fiction Addiction blogged about MORE this week, too.

Apr 8, 2012


If I had any money to wager, I'd bet that poems kids recognize most come from collections by Shel Silverstein or Jack Prelutsky. Whether poetry is ubiquitous or undercover in classrooms, few escape childhood without becoming acquainted with one or both of these fine poets.

Prelutsky's collections and individual poems are available in paperback, online, and even on YouTube. Way back before The New Kids On The Block hit the airwaves as teen-tween heartbreakers, Jack Prelutsky’s New Kid On The Block collection of poems landed on bookshelves and continues to be a hit with kids.

When that happened back in 1984 Jack Prelutsky was already an established success, and one or more of his energized, intensely metered and rhymed romps is likely to be a familiar favorite among generations of now-grown kids.

Since it's April (Poetry Month, remember?) I can't resist calling attention to a pair of his titles that deserve just as much attention. Both are illustrated by the incomparable Paul O. Zelinsky. If you think the ogre in The Dreamworks version of SHREK was appealing, wait until you meet the Ogre starring in AWFUL OGRE'S AWFUL DAY.
This oversized, over-the-top collection of poems constitutes an ironically sensitive diary of a day in the life of the inimitable Awful Ogre. After he rises with his beloved tarantula, buzzard, and other pets, his face is scrubbed with weasel grease, he breakfasts on Scream of Wheat, and his busy day commences. Zelinsky's illustrations elaborate on the richly detailed verses with intricacies and extensions that merit close examination and provide additional laughs.

Awful Ogre first appeared in 2001, then returned to celebrate Prelutsky's year as Children's Poet Laureate in 2008. In AWFUL OGRE RUNNING WILD he's off on a series of wild and crazy adventures totally in character, yet utterly bizarre.

True to the Ogre we met in the first book, he is a renaissance fellow who paints, cooks, meditates, travels, and dragon-watches, among his other refined hobbies. In his first book he wakes screaming from a nightmare featuring disgustingly sweet images that would rival the most romantic rococo artist. In this latter title Ogre ends his day with insomnia which he cures by indulging a case of the munchies with snacks only an ogre could stomach.

In each case both the poems and the illustrations are refined, comic, and appallingly appealing. Explore a site hosted by Scholastic to share some interactive poetry coaching by Prelutsky.
Don't miss a chance to explore more of Zelinsky's classic and current books and adventures on his website, too. Kids who love "search" challenges and the eye-spy books (isn't that all kids?) will adore the labyrinthian layers of his illustrations.

While you're at it, slow yourself down and read Prelutsky's collection of animal haiku poems, IF NOT FOR THE CAT, illustrated by Ted Rand.

Do you have a favorite Prelutsky or Zelinsky title? Or other books that you worry might be overlooked?

Apr 6, 2012

Batter Up!

Opening day! Even with a mild Great Lakes winter, gorgeous early spring, and tulips blooming everywhere, it isn't really spring until baseball's opening day.

Go Brewers!

If you guessed that I'm a baseball fan, you're right.

So, in honor of opening day, I'll make a pitch here with some quick links to titles celebrating heroes of baseball. I'll make it quick, though, because I need to pack up for tailgating.


Since it is a recent release, garnering great reviews, I'll get the game started with There Goes Ted Williams: The Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived by Matt Tavares.

I just got my hands on a copy of this 2012 release this week, and I feel confident in recommending it whether you enjoy baseball or not. Ted Williams is a complex character (who isn't, if it's real life?) and Tavares addresses that in the author's note. But this book focuses on the undeniably incredible baseball accomplishments of Ted Williams.
Its large format, full page illustrations (which remind me somewhat of Kadir Nelson's work), shifting intense perspectives and scales all give a larger-than-life player his due.

Matt Tavares is also the author/illustrator of HENRY AARON'S DREAM, a book I have read and used often. In fact, it's the reason I was anxious to read his Ted Williams release.

David A. Adler has authored many outstanding biographies, but two from the world of baseball are LOU GEHRIG: THE LUCKIEST MAN and A PICTURE BOOK OF JACKIE ROBINSON.

So far these have been iconic names, known by fans and even by those who never watched a single innning. Along those lines when you hear "Hammerin' Hank" you likely expect to hear about Hank Aaron. True enough, he earned the same nickname in the modern era.

But before that time, baseball's color barrier extended beyond race to ethnicity, and the original Hammerin' Hank's story is told in a book by Yona Zeldis McDonough.

Check out HAMMERIN' HANK: THE LIFE OF HANK GREENBERG to learn more about the struggles of a boy from an orthodox Jewish family who wanted to play baseball instead of going to college. His talent won him a place on a major league team, but the fans in the stands were not as welcoming, to say the least.

I'll leave these with you to explore, and each deserves a closer look and more detailed review.

For now my to-do list needs to-be-done so I can settle back to await the umpire's call- PLAY BALL!

Apr 1, 2012


I'll post a day early this week to focus on a major event.
Drum roll please...

lift the page on the calendar...

April has arrived, Poetry Month.

*Sigh* Brace yourself for another mini-rant on the mixed blessing of "Months"- Black History, Women's History, and now Poetry. In my opinion (and I'm far from alone in this) awareness and appreciation of poetry and the rich diversity of contributors to history should be ubiquitous.

Ubiquitous? I've been a word-aholic for as long as I can remember, but I confess (with a mix of smugness and shame) that I rarely used a dictionary. As a prolific reader from a verbal family, I was reasonably good at inferring from context. Add to that my reluctance to interrupt a good story and teachers who also valued expansive vocabularies and I was convinced that I "knew" most words. I even used them in my writing successfully (as indicated by minimal red circles or questions marks on my returned papers). I rarely looked up words, especially if they appeared frequently in text.

"Ubiquitous" is one of those words that I "knew" in a generic way- it kinda sorta meant common or regular or often, or... something like that.

Eventually I acquired enough age to slow my reading and thinking down, to appreciate nuance and precision (obsessive, I am; perfectionist, I am not). That's when I began to "look up" words and found out why the word ubiquitous is so... so... ubiquitous. (adjective: everywhere, omnipresent).

Which brings me to UBIQUITOUS: CELEBRATING NATURE'S SURVIVORS, with Poetry by Joyce Sidman and illustrations by Beckie Prange. (Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, 2010).
Every detail of this book deserves attention, beginning where else- with the end papers. The challenge of creating a timeline for the 4.6 billion year history of planet Earth, to scale, is daunting. A densely swirled and convoluted line fills the double page spread of this large format book, each centimeter equaling a million years. Sweeping timespans from the emergence of bacteria to mollusks, lichens, sharks, beetles, diatoms, geckos, ants, grasses, squirrels, crows dandelions, coyotes, and humans actually make some sense with this accurately rendered and labeled art.

Each page turn after that offers parallel text- a poem paired with accessible scientific narration- embedded in equally beautiful and informative illustrations. Together they offer insight and praise to Earth's ubiquitous survivors over millions of years, to the living things so "omnipresent" that we overlook their amazing success. Precise vocabulary serves both the science and the poetry well, supported by a glossary, author's note, and illustrator's note.

(Patience. I'll tie this all together soon. We're on the home stretch now.)

This book, spotlighting Earth's ubiquitous survivors, should not be overlooked. Nor should poetry. Thus, Poetry Month has its place.

For a little inspiration, and daily links, follow Gottabook, a blog by Greg Pincus, to share his annual 30 Poets/30 Days. He features a different kids' poetry superstar each and every day, some of whom even share original creations for this project.

Do you know any kids who like to write poetry? (Or some who don't?) Check the KIdsWWWrite site edited by Margriet Ruurs. It's a safe and supportive opportunity for kids to publish their work, and even reluctant writers love to do that.

While you're online stop by several other poetry sites, each of which can become addictive habits for you and for kids. First, a resource for you, is PoetryAtPlay.org. Then, for you and for kids, visit GigglePoetry.com and Poetry4Kids.com.

Since April is Poetry Month, seize it. Dive in with both feet using UBIQUITOUS and countless other picture books (to be named soon). Cram every nook and cranny of space and time available (and unavailable- it's POETRY MONTH-duh) with poems of every size, shape, and topic. Make it ubiquitous. And then keep it that way, all throughout the year.

Picture books are as versatile and diverse as the readers who enjoy them. Join me to explore the wacky, wonderful, challenging and changing world of picture books.